Sketches of London: The River

‘Are you fond of the wa­ter?’ is a ques­tion very fre­quently asked, in hot sum­mer weath­er, by am­phibi­ous-look­ing young men. ‘Very,’ is the gen­eral reply. ‘An’t you?’—‘Hardly ever off it,’ is the re­sponse, ac­com­pa­nied by sun­dry ad­jec­tives, ex­pres­sive of the speak­er’s heart­felt ad­mi­ra­tion of that el­e­ment. Now, with all re­spect for the opin­ion of so­ci­ety in gen­eral, and cut­ter clubs in par­tic­u­lar, we humbly sug­gest that some of the most pain­ful rem­i­nis­cences in the mind of every in­di­vid­ual who has oc­ca­sion­ally dis­por­ted him­self on the Thames, must be con­nec­ted with his aquat­ic re­cre­ations. Who ever heard of a suc­cess­ful wa­ter-party?—or to put the ques­tion in a still more in­tel­li­gi­ble form, who ever saw one? We have been on wa­ter ex­cur­sions out of num­ber, but we sol­emnly de­clare that we can­not call to mind one sin­gle oc­ca­sion of the kind, which was not marked by more mis­eries than any one would sup­pose could be rea­son­ably crowded in­to the space of some eight or nine hours. Some­thing has al­ways gone wrong. Ei­ther the cork of the salad-dress­ing has come out, or the most anx­iously ex­pec­ted mem­ber of the party has not come out, or the most dis­agree­able man in com­pany would come out, or a child or two have fallen in­to the wa­ter, or the gen­tle­man who un­der­took to steer has en­dan­gered every­body’s life all the way, or the gen­tle­men who vol­un­teered to row have been ‘out of prac­tice,’ and per­formed very alarm­ing evo­lu­tions, put­ting their oars down in­to the wa­ter and not be­ing able to get them up again, or tak­ing ter­rif­ic pulls with­out put­ting them in at all; in ei­ther case, pitch­ing over on the backs of their heads with star­tling vi­o­lence, and ex­hi­b­it­ing the soles of their pumps to the ‘sit­ters’ in the boat, in a very hu­mil­i­at­ing man­ner.We grant that the banks of the Thames are very beau­ti­ful at Rich­mond and Twick­en­ham, and oth­er dis­tant havens, of­ten sought though sel­dom reached; but from the ‘Red-us’ back to Black­fri­ars-bridge, the scene is won­der­fully changed. The Pen­i­ten­tiary is a noble build­ing, no doubt, and the sport­ive youths who ‘go in’ at that par­tic­u­lar part of the river, on a sum­mer’s even­ing, may be all very well in per­spec­tive; but when you are ob­liged to keep in shore com­ing home, and the young ladies will col­our up, and look per­se­ver­ingly the oth­er way, while the mar­ried dit­tos cough slightly, and stare very hard at the wa­ter, you feel awk­ward—es­pe­cially if you hap­pen to have been at­tempt­ing the most dis­tant ap­proach to sen­ti­men­tal­ity, for an hour or two pre­vi­ously.Al­though ex­pe­ri­en­ce and suf­fer­ing have pro­duced in our minds the re­sult we have just stated, we are by no means blind to a prop­er sense of the fun which a look­er-on may ex­tract from the am­a­teurs of boat­ing. What can be more amus­ing than Searle’s yard on a fine Sun­day morn­ing? It’s a Rich­mond tide, and some dozen boats are pre­par­ing for the re­cep­tion of the par­ties who have en­gaged them. Two or three fel­lows in great rough trousers and Guern­sey shirts, are get­ting them ready by easy stages; now com­ing down the yard with a pair of sculls and a cush­ion—then hav­ing a chat with the ‘Jack,’ who, like all his tribe, seems to be wholly in­ca­pable of do­ing any­thing but loung­ing about—then go­ing back again, and re­turn­ing with a rud­der-line and a stretch­er—then so­lac­ing them­selves with an­oth­er chat—and then won­der­ing, with their hands in their ca­pa­cious pock­ets, ‘where them gen­tle­men’s got to as or­dered the six.’ One of these, the head man, with the legs of his trousers care­fully tucked up at the bot­tom, to ad­mit the wa­ter, we pre­sume—for it is an el­e­ment in which he is in­fi­nitely more at home than on land—is quite a char­ac­ter, and shares with the de­funct oys­ter-sw­al­lower the cel­e­brated name of ‘Dando.’ Watch him, as tak­ing a few min­utes’ res­pite from his toils, he neg­li­gently seats him­self on the edge of a boat, and fans his broad bushy chest with a cap scarcely half so furry. Look at his mag­nif­i­cent, though red­dish whiskers, and mark the some­what na­tive hu­mour with which he ‘chaffs’ the boys and ’pren­tices, or cun­ningly gam­mons the gen’lm’n in­to the gift of a glass of gin, of which we ver­ily be­lieve he sw­al­lows in one day as much as any six or­di­nary men, with­out ever be­ing one atom the worse for it.But the party ar­rives, and Dando, re­lieved from his state of un­cer­tainty, starts up in­to ac­tiv­ity. They ap­proach in full aquat­ic cos­tume, with round blue jack­ets, striped shirts, and caps of all sizes and pat­terns, from the vel­vet skull-cap of French man­u­fac­ture, to the easy head-dress fa­mil­iar to the stu­dents of the old spelling-books, as hav­ing, on the au­thor­ity of the por­trait, formed part of the cos­tume of the Rev­er­end Mr. Dil­worth.This is the most amus­ing time to ob­serve a reg­u­lar Sun­day wa­ter-party. There has ev­i­dently been up to this pe­ri­od no in­con­sid­er­able de­gree of boast­ing on every­body’s part rel­a­tive to his knowl­edge of nav­i­ga­tion; the sight of the wa­ter rap­idly cools their cour­age, and the air of self-de­ni­al with which each of them in­sists on some­body else’s tak­ing an oar, is per­fectly de­light­ful. At length, after a great deal of chang­ing and fid­get­ing, con­se­quent upon the elec­tion of a stroke-oar: the in­abil­ity of one gen­tle­man to pull on this side, of an­oth­er to pull on that, and of a third to pull at all, the boat’s crew are seated. ‘Shove her off!’ cries the cock­swain, who looks as easy and com­fort­able as if he were steer­ing in the Bay of Bis­cay. The or­der is obeyed; the boat is im­me­di­ately turned com­pletely round, and pro­ceeds to­wards West­min­ster-bridge, amidst such a splash­ing and strug­gling as nev­er was seen be­fore, ex­cept when the Roy­al George went down. ‘Back wa’ater, sir,’ shouts Dando, ‘Back wa’ater, you sir, aft;’ upon which every­body think­ing he must be the in­di­vid­ual re­ferred to, they all back wa­ter, and back comes the boat, stern first, to the spot whence it star­ted. ‘Back wa­ter, you sir, aft; pull round, you sir, for’ad, can’t you?’ shouts Dando, in a frenzy of ex­cite­ment. ‘Pull round, Tom, can’t you?’ re-echoes one of the party. ‘Tom an’t for’ad,’ replies an­oth­er. ‘Yes, he is,’ cries a third; and the un­for­tu­nate young man, at the im­mi­nent risk of break­ing a blood-ves­sel, pulls and pulls, un­til the head of the boat fairly lies in the di­rec­tion of Vaux­hall-bridge. ‘That’s right—now pull all on you!’ shouts Dando again, adding, in an un­der-tone, to some­body by him, ‘Blowed if hever I see sich a set of muffs!’ and away jogs the boat in a zig­zag di­rec­tion, every one of the six oars dip­ping in­to the wa­ter at a dif­fer­ent time; and the yard is once more clear, un­til the ar­rival of the next party.A well-con­tested row­ing-match on the Thames, is a very lively and in­ter­est­ing scene. The wa­ter is stud­ded with boats of all sorts, kinds, and de­scrip­tions; places in the coal-barges at the dif­fer­ent wharfs are let to crowds of spec­ta­tors, beer and to­bacco flow freely about; men, wo­men, and chil­dren wait for the start in breath­less ex­pec­ta­tion; cut­ters of six and eight oars glide gen­tly up and down, wait­ing to ac­com­pany their protégés dur­ing the race; bands of mu­sic add to the an­i­ma­tion, if not to the har­mony of the scene; groups of wa­ter­men are as­sem­bled at the dif­fer­ent stairs, dis­cuss­ing the mer­its of the re­spec­tive can­di­dates; and the prize wherry, which is rowed slowly about by a pair of sculls, is an ob­ject of gen­eral in­ter­est.Two o’clock strikes, and every­body looks anx­iously in the di­rec­tion of the bridge through which the can­di­dates for the prize will come—half-past two, and the gen­eral at­ten­tion which has been pre­served so long be­gins to flag, when sud­denly a gun is heard, and a noise of dis­tant hurra’ing along each bank of the river—every head is bent for­ward—the noise draws near­er and near­er—the boats which have been wait­ing at the bridge start briskly up the river, and a well-manned gal­ley shoots through the arch, the sit­ters cheer­ing on the boats be­hind them, which are not yet vis­i­ble.‘Here they are,’ is the gen­eral cry—and through darts the first boat, the men in her, stripped to the skin, and ex­ert­ing every mus­cle to pre­serve the ad­van­tage they have gained—four oth­er boats fol­low close astern; there are not two boats’ length be­tween them—the shout­ing is tre­men­dous, and the in­ter­est in­tense. ‘Go on, Pink’—‘Give it her, Red’—‘Sul­li­win for ever’—‘Bravo! George’—‘Now, Tom, now—now—now—why don’t your part­ner stretch out?’—‘Two pots to a pint on Yel­low,’ &c., &c. Every lit­tle pub­lic-house fires its gun, and hoists its flag; and the men who win the heat, come in, amidst a splash­ing and shout­ing, and bang­ing and con­fu­sion, which no one can imag­ine who has not wit­nessed it, and of which any de­scrip­tion would con­vey a very faint idea.One of the most amus­ing places we know is the steam-wharf of the Lon­don Bridge, or St. Kath­ar­ine’s Dock Com­pany, on a Sat­ur­day morn­ing in sum­mer, when the Gravesend and Mar­gate steam­ers are usu­ally crowded to ex­cess; and as we have just taken a glance at the river above bridge, we hope our read­ers will not ob­ject to ac­com­pany us on board a Gravesend pack­et.Coaches are every mo­ment set­ting down at the en­trance to the wharf, and the stare of be­wil­dered as­ton­ish­ment with which the ‘fares’ re­sign them­selves and their lug­gage in­to the hands of the port­ers, who seize all the pack­ages at once as a mat­ter of course, and run away with them, heav­en knows where, is laugh­able in the ex­treme. A Mar­gate boat lies along­side the wharf, the Gravesend boat (which starts first) lies along­side that again; and as a tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ca­tion is formed be­tween the two, by means of a plank and hand-rail, the nat­ur­al con­fu­sion of the scene is by no means di­min­ished.‘Gravesend?’ in­quires a stout fa­ther of a stout fam­ily, who fol­low him, un­der the guid­ance of their moth­er, and a ser­vant, at the no small risk of two or three of them be­ing left be­hind in the con­fu­sion. ‘Gravesend?’‘Pass on, if you please, sir,’ replies the at­ten­dant—‘oth­er boat, sir.’Here­upon the stout fa­ther, be­ing rather mys­ti­fied, and the stout moth­er rather dis­trac­ted by ma­ter­nal anx­i­ety, the whole party de­pos­it them­selves in the Mar­gate boat, and after hav­ing con­grat­u­lated him­self on hav­ing se­cured very com­fort­able seats, the stout fa­ther sal­lies to the chim­ney to look for his lug­gage, which he has a faint rec­ol­lec­tion of hav­ing giv­en some man, some­thing, to take some­where. No lug­gage, how­ever, bear­ing the most re­mote re­sem­blance to his own, in shape or form, is to be dis­cov­ered; on which the stout fa­ther calls very loudly for an of­fi­cer, to whom he states the case, in the pres­en­ce of an­oth­er fa­ther of an­oth­er fam­ily—a lit­tle thin man—who en­tirely con­curs with him (the stout fa­ther) in think­ing that it’s high time some­thing was done with these steam com­pa­nies, and that as the Cor­po­ra­tion Bill failed to do it, some­thing else must; for re­ally peo­ple’s prop­erty is not to be sac­ri­ficed in this way; and that if the lug­gage isn’t re­stored with­out delay, he will take care it shall be put in the pa­pers, for the pub­lic is not to be the vic­tim of these great mo­nop­o­lies. To this, the of­fi­cer, in his turn, replies, that that com­pany, ever since it has been St. Kat’rine’s Dock Com­pany, has pro­tec­ted life and prop­erty; that if it had been the Lon­don Bridge Wharf Com­pany, in­deed, he shouldn’t have won­dered, see­ing that the mor­al­ity of that com­pany (they be­ing the op­po­si­tion) can’t be an­swered for, by no one; but as it is, he’s con­vinced there must be some mis­take, and he wouldn’t mind mak­ing a sol­emn oath afore a mag­is­trate that the gen­tle­man’ll find his lug­gage afore he gets to Mar­gate.Here the stout fa­ther, think­ing he is mak­ing a cap­i­tal point, replies, that as it hap­pens, he is not go­ing to Mar­gate at all, and that ‘Pas­sen­ger to Gravesend’ was on the lug­gage, in let­ters of full two inches long; on which the of­fi­cer rap­idly ex­plains the mis­take, and the stout moth­er, and the stout chil­dren, and the ser­vant, are hur­ried with all pos­si­ble des­patch on board the Gravesend boat, which they reached just in time to dis­cov­er that their lug­gage is there, and that their com­fort­able seats are not. Then the bell, which is the sig­nal for the Gravesend boat start­ing, be­gins to ring most fu­ri­ously: and peo­ple keep time to the bell, by run­ning in and out of our boat at a dou­ble-quick pace. The bell stops; the boat starts: peo­ple who have been tak­ing leave of their friends on board, are car­ried away against their will; and peo­ple who have been tak­ing leave of their friends on shore, find that they have per­formed a very need­less cer­e­mony, in con­se­quence of their not be­ing car­ried away at all. The reg­u­lar pas­sen­gers, who have sea­son tick­ets, go be­low to break­fast; peo­ple who have pur­chased morn­ing pa­pers, com­pose them­selves to read them; and peo­ple who have not been down the river be­fore, think that both the ship­ping and the wa­ter, look a great deal bet­ter at a dis­tance.When we get down about as far as Black­wall, and be­gin to move at a quick­er rate, the spir­its of the pas­sen­gers ap­pear to rise in pro­por­tion. Old wo­men who have brought large wick­er hand-bas­kets with them, set se­ri­ously to work at the de­mo­li­tion of heavy sand­wiches, and pass round a wine-glass, which is fre­quently re­plen­ished from a flat bot­tle like a stom­ach-warm­er, with con­sid­er­able glee: hand­ing it first to the gen­tle­man in the for­ag­ing-cap, who plays the harp—partly as an ex­pres­sion of sat­is­fac­tion with his pre­vi­ous ex­er­tions, and partly to in­duce him to play ‘Dum­b­le­dumb­deary,’ for ‘Alick’ to dance to; which be­ing done, Alick, who is a damp earthy child in red worsted socks, takes cer­tain small jumps upon the deck, to the un­speak­able sat­is­fac­tion of his fam­ily cir­cle. Girls who have brought the first vol­ume of some new nov­el in their ret­ic­ule, be­come ex­tremely plain­tive, and ex­pa­ti­ate to Mr. Brown, or young Mr. O’Bri­en, who has been look­ing over them, on the blue­ness of the sky, and bright­ness of the wa­ter; on which Mr. Brown or Mr. O’Bri­en, as the case may be, re­marks in a low voice that he has been quite in­sen­si­ble of late to the beau­ties of na­ture, that his whole thoughts and wishes have cen­tred in one ob­ject alone—where­upon the young lady looks up, and fail­ing in her at­tempt to ap­pear un­con­scious, looks down again; and turns over the next leaf with great dif­fi­culty, in or­der to af­ford op­por­tu­nity for a length­ened pres­sure of the hand.Tele­scopes, sand­wiches, and glasses of brandy-and-wa­ter cold with­out, be­gin to be in great req­ui­si­tion; and bash­ful men who have been look­ing down the hatch­way at the en­gine, find, to their great re­lief, a sub­ject on which they can con­verse with one an­oth­er—and a co­pi­ous one too—Steam.‘Won­der­ful thing steam, sir.’ ‘Ah! (a deep-drawn sigh) it is in­deed, sir.’ ‘Great power, sir.’ ‘Im­mense—im­mense!’ ‘Great deal done by steam, sir.’ ‘Ah! (an­oth­er sigh at the im­men­sity of the sub­ject, and a know­ing shake of the head) you may say that, sir.’ ‘Still in its in­fancy, they say, sir.’ Nov­el re­marks of this kind, are gen­er­ally the com­mence­ment of a con­ver­sa­tion which is pro­longed un­til the con­clu­sion of the trip, and, per­haps, lays the foun­da­tion of a speak­ing ac­quain­tance be­tween half-a-dozen gen­tle­men, who, hav­ing their fam­i­lies at Gravesend, take sea­son tick­ets for the boat, and dine on board reg­u­larly every af­ter­noon.

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